March 15

Body Armor, Crossbows, Open Carry…. Myths, Bad Information, and Legal Gray Areas of Massachusetts Law

Is it illegal to own ballistic body armor in Massachusetts? Can a person possess a crossbow? Does this bastion of liberal views and gun control allow open carry? I admit, there was a time when I assumed I knew the answers to these questions without actually doing any research, and I even perpetuated some of the bad information (to my friends, of course, never a paying client who asked me to advise them about these specific topics. If you’re writing the checks, I’m hitting the books, but… if you’re buying me a beer, all you get is the intel I have stored between my ears). The answers seem so intuitive to anyone even vaguely familiar with Massachusetts that you might think it’d be a waste of time to do any sort of deep research. Everything is illegal in Massachusetts! Of course body armor is illegal in Massachusetts! Crossbows? You need a permit that shows you have a disability that prevents you from using a regular bow in order to hunt with one! Open carry of a firearm? Heck no! Where do you think you are, Texas? Is this the full story? I think not.

Here’s the real deal (see disclaimer). Body armor: You cannot wear it while committing a felony in Massachusetts. Notice it does not say “violent” felony, so … stow the flak jacket while fudging your taxes. There are additional federal laws that also apply, e.g. you cannot own it if you are a convicted violent felon, but that’s about it as far as laws I could find regarding ballistic armor in Massachusetts. Having worn it myself for military training, I don’t recommend it. The military grade vests are heavy (between 35 and 40lbs and I’m a big boy so they gave me the XL size), hot, and uncomfortable. The first time I wore one I was fine for about 20 minutes, and then three hours later it felt like someone had worked my shoulders over with a hammer. But… it’s not illegal as far as I can tell, so if you’re into that sort of thing and you can find it, afford it, aren’t going to use it during the commission of a felony, and aren’t a convicted violent felon, suit up!

Crossbows: Not illegal to own in Massachusetts, but apparently not lawful for use in hunting unless you have a disability of the sort that doesn’t allow you to use a standard style bow. That’s it. As far as I can tell, you can own a crossbow in Massachusetts, but you cannot use it for hunting. I checked a few sporting and hunting retailers’ web sites and none seem to have a problem shipping crossbows to Massachusetts. I don’t see anything requiring a permit to own one either. But you can’t use it for hunting… so why would you want to own one? Because…. You know… Reasons.

Open carry: This is an easy one, right? NOT illegal with the correct permit and for certain kinds of firearms! Who would have thought? This is Massachusetts after all, the state with some of the strictest gun laws in the United States. How can this be possible?! Ok, first thing’s first: It is 100% illegal to open carry a rifle or shotgun loaded or unloaded on a public way in Massachusetts unless you fall under the exceptions described in the law. Even if you have a permit to own the rifle/shotgun, you aren’t allowed to carry it on a public way (but, see the exception for hunting). With a Class A License to Carry Firearms, however, you can “… purchase, rent, lease, borrow, possess and carry: […] firearms…”. Note that “firearm” in this instance means basically pistols, handguns, and revolvers. Here is an interesting article regarding the possibility of open carry in Texas with a good discussion of Massachusetts firearms law (you read that right, as of today’s date, Texas does not allow open carry of handguns). Note that the executive director of the Gun Owner’s Action League talks about the fact that open carry of a handgun seems to be technically lawful because the licensing statute allows licensees to “possess and carry” such firearms and makes no further specification, so it does not distinguish between openly carrying or carrying concealed when it comes to handguns. Interesting that Texas, a state widely known (or at least believed by many) to have a pro-gun culture, is referring to Massachusetts, one of the most restrictive states in terms of gun laws, as a reference point to craft its open carry laws. You can also refer to G.O.A.L.’s website, which has some very good and comprehensive information regarding licensing and other gun laws, but as always you should contact a lawyer for legal advice and never rely solely on information given on a website. Full disclosure: I am a member G.O.A.L. and an occasional donor.

So what about open carrying a rifle, shotgun or handgun in or on a place that is not a public way? Well, it is this young lawyer’s opinion that if you are not on a public way, you are most likely on private property (although not definitely… how are we defining “public way” here anyway? Another question for another day). In that case, the property owner sets the rules, which might include ejecting you from their property for carrying a weapon whether you are licensed or not.

So why is it often assumed that body armor, crossbows, and open carry are illegal in this fine state? The best answer I have is the cultural and social norms of this very weapon shy state make it seem like it is. That’s it. People think these things are or should be illegal, and generally people are not lawyers and don’t have a clue what they are talking about.

Try Googling these questions, or read a few online forums, even some reputable hunting/shooting sites… they are chock full of absolute nonsense and bad legal advice. If you are trying to get legal advice for free online (including from this Blog!!!!) you will get exactly what you paid for, which is terrible free legal advice from someone who was probably not a lawyer, or worse, you will get terrible free legal advice that will put you in an extremely bad position (e.g.: Someone told you it was legal to openly carry a shotgun on a public way as long as it isn’t loaded? That excuse won’t fly with the cops nor a judge, and you will be on the hook for criminal and civil penalties despite your very best intentions and attempts to follow the law that you only thought you understood). The Internet, particularly sites where anyone can post answers to questions (contrast with a site like Avvo, where the people answering the questions are actually lawyers; Full disclosure: I pay for a sponsored listing on Avvo) is the worst place to get legal advice. You don’t know who is answering your question, you might be getting flat out wrong information, and you will be held liable if you unwittingly break the law because you failed to understand it properly.

The law is complex. It turns out that you need roughly 7 years of school in most states to become licensed to give legal advice, so you should probably think twice before you go out armed with a lethal weapon and intel you got from a website of dubious quality and origin. What’s the best source of information on the laws? I’d like to direct your attention to the end of each and every answer given by a lawyer on Avvo.com. They all recommend you talk to a licensed attorney in your state. The best source of information on the law as it relates to your specific case is your attorney, one that you called on the phone, talked to in person, formed an attorney-client relationship with, and paid. No one is ever in a rush to fork over cash money, but my legal education was not free, so yours won’t be either, but, you’ll get what you pay for, and it sure as heck beats going to jail because you got shoddy backyard legal advice.